Planetary science involves the study of solar system formation and evolution, the geology of planets and their atmospheres, asteroid impacts and dynamics. Fundamentally, it is the study of how a nebula of dust and gas can evolve to a planetary system, and generate planets capable of supporting life. It pulls together multiple fields, pure and applied, including engineering.

Curtin University has the largest planetary science research program in Australia, inclusive of the Desert Fireball Network, and is looking to expand this vibrant and diverse team with new PhD students.

SSTC has pioneered the development of large networked facilities using hardened autonomous observatories. The Desert Fireball Network (DFN) has 50 autonomous stations across Australia. It has been observing ~2.5 million km2 of Australian skies since 2015. It provides a spatial context for meteorites – we can track a rock back to where it originated in the solar system, and forward to where it lands, for recovery by a field party. The database of >1400 meteoroid orbits is larger than the combined literature dataset for >70 years of observation, providing a unique window into the distribution of debris in the inner solar system. With 14 international partners, and facilitated by NASA, the project has recently expanded to a global facility. The Global Fireball Observatory (GFO) will cover x5 the observing area of the DFN, able to track debris entering our atmosphere 24 hours a day. These networks informed the development of a satellite tracking network – FireOPAL – with Lockheed Martin. Although designed for satellite observations, FireOPAL also happens to be a world-class astronomical transient observatory. The DFN, GFO, and FireOPAL are helping us answer fundamental questions in planetary science and astronomy. If you would like to be part of this team, and work with colleagues in universities around the world, at NASA, and in industry, read on.  


There are many projects to get involved with the DFN from orbital modelling to hardware design to meteorite analysis. As part of the SSTC, projects are highly multi-disciplinary and are suitable for students with backgrounds in physics, astronomy, geophysics, geology, data science, maths and engineering. Dedicated projects using the large scale observational facilities are outlined below, with others available on the SSTC website.
Merit based RTP scholarships are available for 2021. 
More about the host institution: https://sstc.curtin.edu.au/

Application deadline: September 1, 2020 

Locating falling meteorites with weather radars

When meteoroids impact the Earth's atmosphere and survive as meteorites, they are invisible to optical cameras in the last 20-30 km before reaching the ground, because they fly below the ablation limit above which they emit light: this is the "dark flight" phase. There has been some success in the USA in locating the meteorites in dark flight with weather radars, drastically reducing the search area on the ground. By cross-matching Desert Fireball Network meteorite falls and weather radar data, this project will explore how this can be done with Australian weather radar systems. Previous knowlegde in meteorite or radar data is not necessary, the student will learn a bit about both during the project, as well as some data science techniques. (image credit: Marc Fries, PSI)

Background preferred: physics or engineering, basic coding skills.
Main supervisor: Dr. Hadrien Devillepoix
1 projects
0 projects

Strengths of meteoroids in the upper atmosphere

Recent space missions to asteroids have gathered detailed information not just on the composition of these bodies, but also on their material properties – e.g. their strength, and whether they are a rubble pile or a single monolithic rock. But we know very little about the strength of small objects in the metre to 10s meter class. This project will look at the breakup of meteoroids in our atmosphere to calculate the bulk strengths of these objects. It will also look at the origins of this material to determine if there is a correlation between strengths and any specific orbits or regions of the Solar System, or specific asteroids and their families. The results will inform our understanding of the asteroid hazard (do small objects all generate airburst ‘Tunguska-like’ explosions), the lifetime of debris in the inner Solar System, and how we date the ages of planetary surfaces.

Background preferred: astronomy or physics.
Main supervisor: Dr. Eleanor Sansom

Debris streams in the inner Solar System

Meteor showers are typically associated with smaller, cometary material. Despite the DFN being tuned to brighter fireball events, we do observed events with meteor showers arising from known cometary parent bodies. Asteroid Bennu was recently visited by NASA’s OSIRIS-REx, where material was seen being spun off the surface. This project will investigate if there are any objects in the DFN data that could have originated from such a body and assess the likelihood of asteroid streams. For showers known for having larger material, is this an indication of different production mechanisms possibly associated with asteroid break up or spin-off debris rather than from a comet?

Background preferred: data science, astronomy, physics.
Main supervisor: Dr. Hadrien Devillepoix

Large scale searches for astronomical transients

Whether looking for meteorite or tracking satellites, the DFN continuously scans large areas of the night sky, compiling a unique archive of the entire visible sky at an unmatched cadence. At any point the DFN is probing 20,000° of sky down to vmag=8 (30 second cadence), and 2,500° down to vmag=15 (10 second cadence). This opens up a new area in time-domain astronomy, and allows detection of the fastest optical transient phenomenas. This PhD project will focus on the development of a data pipeline that will open up these facilities for astronomical research, and then an exploration of those new research possibilities. In building the software that will identify non-local astronomical anomalies (supernovae, flaring stars, gravitational waves counterparts, exoplanets) the student will: have access to all of the DFN output; the ability to test computational approaches on a lab-based system and upload new iterations of software remotely to deployed observatories; and the full 6-year dataset from the entire network (~2000TB) stored at the Pawsey Supercomputing Centre.

Background preferred: data science or astronomy.
Main supervisor: Dr. Hadrien Devillepoix

Strengths of meteoroids in the upper atmosphere

How much material is bombarding the Earth on a daily basis? The dataset is well constrained for large (>10s m sized) objects, as well as the small, dusty material, but the cm-m size range is poorly known. The DFN dataset contains the largest and most complete record of the flux, size distribution, and orbits of material intersecting out planet. This project will use the DFN’s orbital database to answer the fundamental question: how often do we get impacted? This will place a critical constrain on the impact hazard (there is an order-of-magnitude variation in estimates of Tunguska-class impactors). These data can also be used to model the flux of material into the inner solar system in general. How much material might be expected on the Moon, or even Mars?

Background preferred: astronomy, physics, statistics.
Main supervisor: Dr. Eleanor Sansom
4 projects

Depending on your interest, we likely have a project for you. The specific projects above may be more suited to the backgrounds listed, but we will consider applications from other backgrounds if suitable.
Australian Government Research Training Program (RTP) Scholarships will be available to apply for mid year, with projects starting end 2020/early 2021. We want to start the conversation with you today. Email the primary supervisor listed or have a look through our Research projects page to start talking science.